Playing with the iPad

English: An iPad 2 on stand.
English: An iPad 2 on stand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wife has just purchased an  IPad2. We took it home and took it out of the box and found something very interesting. It did not have one of those huge booklets explaining how to use it and how to set it up. We simply switched it on and then followed the screen instructions.

After the initial setting up of the account information we found ourselves with a Home Screen full of icons. There was no real explanation of how to use the icons and therefore we had to explore them.

Now I have been working for a few years now to encourage my previously technophobic wife to explore and play with the technology because “what’s the worst thing that can happen?” (it won’t explode!).

She has taken my advice and has gained confidence, particularly with her beloved Facebook and its many addictive games. About a year ago we both purchased Android phones and began to experiment with touch screen technology and the use of Apps.

So, when the new iPad arrived we had no fear of experimentation and most importantly, no fear of failure. We both appreciated that we would learn by playing with the machine. We did not need to go to a course to learn, or wade through some lengthy booklet that said press this button and then that one. We just played and found out.

The Android phone experience was wonderful, we had a point of reference for using a touchscreen and for downloading Apps. We loaded up the Safari web browser which neither of us had ever used before and quickly found out how to use it (again based on our experiences of using Explorer, Chrome and most importantly Firefox).

We are now on day 2 of playing with our Pad and we are finding it a really good experience. We have made lots of mistakes but have not been phased by them and we are gaining proficiency as we go along.

The idea that you learn naturally by exploring, making mistakes and most of all not fearing the prospect of failure is what makes all forms of learning fun and enriching. Compare this to what might have happened if we had been told that the only place to learn how to use the iPad was to go to a school, sit in a classroom, wade through texts and try to follow some teacher/lecturer who drones on about important aspects of how to use the machine and then sends us to sleep!

I just wonder why we continue to persevere with an outdated system that creates barriers to real learning and do not follow Apple’s brilliant example…. give them a chance to play and experiment, make it fun and make failure a learning process rather than a wall to be overcome.

Why excitement is key to learning

Anyone will tell you that you cannot learn if you are bored. You will learn very fast though if you are excited by what you have to learn.

Children and adults learn things all the time.They can learn how to steal a car if that particular subject grabs them. They can learn to plant flowers or to work under the bonnet of a car. If there is interest and motivation then learning can and does take place.

I am currently reading an e-book called “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” by Barbara Arrowsmith Young. It is a fascinating account of  how a young woman who until she was 23 years of age suffered from severe learning difficulties but had great powers of memory and perseverance managed to use new findings in the field of neuroscience to  create new connections in her brain that released the power of logic and many other skills that she did not possess before.

I have recently been reading a lot of books and articles about neuroscience and in particular those aspects of the subject that refer to education. I find myself excited by it all and have found that I have quickly picked up many scientific terms in relation to the brain (i.e. neurons, synapses, dendrites).

There are many of you out there who may well find the subject less exciting! If you were asked to read the material that I have been reading then you may well use that often heard word in schoolrooms everywhere “boring”.

I have to admit that, when I was at school, I did not find mathematics interesting at all. I learnt what I had to learn of the many algorithms that I was taught and would mechanically attempt to find answers to questions that meant little or nothing to me.

I became a primary school teacher and had to learn to teach the subject to children. I discovered something that was never there when I was at school “learning” mathematics…. it was really interesting. It had a language all to itself and was, at its best, involved with exploring practically every aspect of our existence on the planet by searching for patterns or explanations to physical phenomena.

I started to get excited by the subject and found myself wanting to learn more. I went out and bought some interesting  books (I was particularly taken by the work of the now largely forgotten mathematician W.W. Sawyer).

There are those who have told me that they found history boring when they were at school. Many of them now say that they find it fascinating because they have become excited by watching something about the subject on T.V. or by getting interested in exploring their own family history. I always found the subject fascinating because I enjoyed the various dramas. I was fascinated as a child by prehistory and ancient history. My history teachers did not have to work that hard to get me motivated to learn. I found the subject very easy to learn and quite quickly grasped the connections between the main players. I later developed an interest in politics and finished up doing a degree in the subject.

Apart from mathematics the subject area that I have found more and more fascinating is science. I did not do well in the sciences at school because I could not get on with the mechanistic way that it was taught. Physics was a nightmare of what seemed to me to be applied mathematics. I could not get excited by working out forces and electronics seemed too complex after we went past simple circuitry. I gave up biology after my third year in secondary school.The idea of learning about cells, biochemistry and genetics would have seemed as exciting as learning French had been! (My very poor fumbling attempts at speaking the language attest to how much I learnt or was interested by the subject).

I feel that excitement is really the key to learning. We learn fast those things that grab us whether it be fishing for trout, Egyptian hieroglyphics or flower arranging. It is not enough to say that a subject can afford to be dull and unexciting because it is somehow “good for you”. As we discuss curriculum chan we need to consider that it is not what is taught that is important but the way that it is taught and presented to the learner. Over the years I have followed the many programmes of David Attenborough on T.V. His passion and charisma sell the natural world to so many people. Marcus Du Sautoy is doing the same kind of thing for mathematics.

We neglect excitement and interest in learning at our peril.

Conrad Wolfram’s response to the proposed new Primary Mathematics Curriculum

I have been reading Conrad Wolfram‘s well argued response to the ideas put forward this week in respect of the proposed new Primary Curriculum for Mathematics.


He was pleased to see that problem-solving had been incorporated into the proposed curriculum and that it was not too prescriptive. But to quote him: Where my support starts to diverge is with procedures for multiplying fractions (when did you last use this formally eg. 3/16 x 7/8?) and there’s a gaping chasm by the time we get to long-division (ever need to use that?).

He sees long-division as being a mechanical process and not related to problem-solving.He presents us with a really good example thus:

He states that it is exercises such as these that put many people off of mathematics. I couldn’t agree more. My memories of learning mathematics at school were of doing pages of long multiplications, multiplying fractions, dividing fractions (inverse the second fraction and multiply.. no-one ever explained why this worked just to do it). No subject unmotivated me more than mathematics  or made me long for the moment when I could give it all up and do something that really interested me.

I agree with Conrad Wolfram that the excitement of learning mathematics lies in exploration and problem solving. He is running a campaign called Computer Based Mathematics (see ) to encourage students to use computers to really explore powerful ideas in the subject. To quote him again: Instead of rote learning long-division procedures, let’s get students applying the power of calculus, picking holes in government statistics, designing a traffic system or cracking secret codes (so topical this month with Alan Turing’s anniversary and his computer-based code breaking). All are possible, all train both creativity, conceptual understanding and have practical results. But they need computers to do most of the calculating–just like we do in the real world.

The new Primary Curriculum could be a chance for the take a step into the future. To encourage children to play with mathematical ideas and to really get to know just how interesting and exciting it can be as a subject. Instead we may face yet another generation who are bored senseless and , like my younger self, counting the days till they can be put out of their misery and not have to do one more long division or work out a senseless percentage that bears no relevance to the real world!

Thank you Conrad for speaking out on behalf of what can be done. It would be wonderful (though unlikely) if the Government were to actually take heed of his words.


The lure of the past: The proposed new primary curriculum

So here we are. The so-called “Expert Group” have decided that we must “return to basics”. Times Tables up to 12 to be mastered by aged 9, learning poems by heart and spellings, spellings, spellings! There is even room for the unlikely skill of being able to multiply and divide fractions.

It feels very much like the lure of the past has held sway. It seems strange though that this curriculum has emerged at a time like this where the world has changed in so many ways. I have written quite a few posts in the past about my belief that we must adapt to new technologies and requirements of the global village. The world of today is about creative solutions to the many many problems that we face.

I spent a very valuable hour or so reading blog posts from the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). This organisation excites me because it is trying to find solutions to many of these problems. It is looking to what skills we will need  in order to cope with the shifting sands of the 21st century. I do not suspect that it is required reading for Mr Gove or his band of experts.

I was particularly interested in their concept of an “area based curriculum” which they have pioneered in Manchester and are now trying in the city of Peterborough near to where I live. Basically it is about networking, use of the local community and expertise, a curriculum that makes sense because it has real world connections. Read all about it here. Compare this approach to the harking back to a curriculum that many Victorians would have no trouble recognising!

I feel that we are moving in the wrong direction in regards to curriculum development and the results for our children could be devastating. I would be interested to hear your opinions on this.

The advantages of sitting on the sidelines

I have had the advantage the last few weeks of beginning to enjoy my retirement after the problems (and joys) of moving house.

I am now able to spend time looking through my usual information sources, namely, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and try and keep up with the latest developments in my major field of interest, education. I have also found a new source of valuable information in the different groups that I belong to on Linkedin.

It has been fascinating to see how things have been developing whilst I am sat on the sidelines looking on so to speak. It seems to me that things have not changed that much there is still the ongoing discussion about Governments trying to dictate to teachers how they must teach and judging them by results only. There is the slow pace of adoption of educational technology. The voices of sanity (as I call them) continue to state their concerns and the voices of reaction continue to believe that there needs to be more and more draconian measures to combat what they see as the “descent into the educational abyss”.

I am so glad to be where I am. I no longer feel a deep frustration because the things I want to see in schools just aren’t happening and the things that I don’t want to see increasingly are! I feel free to put forward my views about the madness of our age and not fear that I might somehow be seen as offending the powers that be.

The problem is that there are so many of my colleagues who are suffering from the iniquities of our times. They are the victims of  politicians who know that they can score cheap points in political rhetoric by stating the mantra of  “standards”. They are under constant pressure to perform and their “results” in terms of tests and examinations are looked at in detail and can result in their dismissal.

I have the advantage of sitting on the sidelines. I do not live under the pressures or the taunts . I no longer have to face disgruntled parents who feel free to tell me how I should teach because they know how to run a school since they went to a few of them once!

There are advantages of sitting on the sidelines and screaming out loud that the game is going wrong… there are great frustrations as well…. is anyone listening? Who cares about the man jumping up and down and waving his arms wildly?


Rethinking mathematics in schools : Research Ideas

I was fortunate on doing a search on YouTube on Seymour Papert to make a discovery of a video called  “The Math Liberation Front” . In this video we saw three children dressed in guerilla clothes stating that mathematics should be fun and interesting but it has been ruined by the owners of the curriculum who make it boring.

The end of the video gave a link to the site that this video came from which is  This is a really exciting site that contains stories, videos, lesson plans and other material .

The basis of the site is the belief that mathematics should be an experience that is enjoyable. The child should have the chance to explore ideas and language arts should be a major means for this to happen.

The leading researcher in this approach is George Gadanidis  He has written as book called “What Did You Do In Math Today?” which he states is the question that many parents ask their child after they get home from school, only to be told, “I don’t know” or “nothing”.

To quote Gadanidis:

How can we change this?

  • engage children with “math that is interesting to talk about” and,
  • help children develop communication skills for telling good math stories
Well this site does just that. It contains some really good interviews with mathematicians, some excellent stories or links to books that can be purchased for maths lessons. There are videos of children exploring some wonderful mathematical ideas (for instance if you walk towards a door you can get half way there, then you can get half way to the half distance that is left and so on ad infinitum, the only problem is you never get to the door… why is that?).

I must admit that I found the site full of good (and exciting) ideas and would very much have liked the opportunity to have experienced mathematics like this when I was at school.

I can thoroughly recommend the site and hope that it gets the following that it deserves.